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SAN FRANCISCO — Some prominent female game developers brought down the house again with an inspiring session on what it’s like for them to work — and persevere and thrive — in the male-dominated game industry.
The session was the third annual #1Reason2Be panel at the Game Developers Conference. And it was a much-needed session, given the harassment of female game developers and others thanks to Internet haters during the past year. Gamergate — the Twitter-driven drama that has led to the harassment of a lot of women in gaming — has left women scarred and fearful, as evidenced by an “empty chair” on the panel that represented all of the women who turned down the offer to speak because they were afraid of the personal attacks it could draw. That’s why the GDC session was such an emotional release, as it has been in years past.
“I wouldn’t have gotten through this year without support,” said Leigh Alexander, a game journalist who has written a lot about sexism in games and has become a target as a result. “No longer are we competing for that one pink chair in the room. My message is diverse teams categorically make a better game industry.”
Alexander, who kicked off the session, said she will leave the developer-centric news site Gamasutra and start a new publication, Offworld.com, with writer Laura Hudson to write about women and minorities in games.
Alexander asked the crowd to “make a space in your life for people who are not like you. These are things that we can change.
“We can’t allow the enemies of progress to be in charge of our stories.”
Elizabeth LaPensee, an indie game designer and writer, focuses on creating games about indigenous cultures, such as Gathering Native Foods by Touchscreen Games. She calls these games “indigenous teachings” as ways to connect people back to the land.
“For me, creating games is an act of ‘survivance,’ survival and endurance,” she said. “It’s clear that indigenous games are on the rise.”
Constance Steinkuehler, an academic who studies the intellectual life of video games, spent time at the White House as President Barack Obama’s expert on video games in the White House Office of Science and Technology. Her job was to help discover what to do in the innovation ecosystem and what scientific discoveries can video games enable. She felt proud that she got a Portal gun in the White House. She also had to deal with the issue of video game violence.
As for Gamergate, she said, “This year has been kind of a shit show.”
She noted that women are now 52 percent of American gamers and that they are 22.5 percent of the game industry. Back in 2005, the number was 11.5 percent.
“It’s a whole new medium, and I’m not going to back down,” Steinkuehler said.
Amy Hennig, senior creative director of Electronic Arts’ Visceral Games, was the creative director of games like the Uncharted series. She has been doing it for the last 20 years. She reminisced about pumping quarters into arcade games like Night Driver and Sea Wolf. She studied film but then veered off into games. She broke into the game industry at EA and moved on to Eidos’ Crystal Dynamics.
“Those were good years,” she said.
In 2003, she joined Naughty Dog to work on Jak 3. Then she spent almost a decade working on the Uncharted games. She’s now working on Star Wars.
“It’s kind of amazing the path your life takes you,” Hennig said. “This makes me kind of uncomfortable, knowing what kind of year people have had. It’s absolutely critical to cut through the negativity.”
She said she wasn’t discounting any one else’s story, but she said in 20 years that she had never experienced any harassment.
“I may be just oblivious, and maybe that has worked for me,” she said. “This industry is a haven for me. The Internet is a toxic place. Gamer culture can be noxious. The media can elevate negativity.”
She gets her share of “shitty comments” like “make me a sandwich, grandma.” My response, “Yeah, I’ll make you a sandwich. And a triple-A game franchise, too.” She then showed a picture of Uncharted.
“How about that, you little punk,” she said. “For me, the game industry is a shining castle on a hill. The shitty things can make our castle a nightmare.”
She said the game industry is not a frightening place for women. It’s not a hostile place, as the media have portrayed it in the past year.
“We need to turn that around,” she said. “Come on in. The water is fine.”
Sela Davis is a server engineer at Microsoft, where she works on technology that makes games possible. She made games for a while. She said that it’s easy to feel unqualified to join an industry with a bunch of “bad ass” engineers. That mentality leads to an “imposter syndrome” for the women who do make it into the industry, like they feel they don’t belong in the industry and will be found out some day by their colleagues. Her actual friends, colleagues and others reassure her that she does belong in the business.
She thanked the crowd and said, “You guys are all fucking wonderful.”
Romero, who last night won the Ambassador Award from the Game Developers Choice Awards, told a story about a mountain lion that was captured on her home’s outside security camera. She said that she fears the mountain lion will eat her, even though the chances of that happening are remote. And that fear stops her from doing things she really wants to do, like walking around outside. That was her analogy for the current climate in the game industry.
Adriel Wallick spent a year making one game every single week. Her reason to be in games is it enabled her to be who she is. She said that the game community helped her learn how to make games.
“It has given me so much, and create things I’m proud of and meet so many people,” she said.”That’s my reason why I’m here.”
Katherine Cross, another academic at City University of New York, has been studying harassment in the game industry. She studied Gamergate and spoke out about it in September, and she received a hail of abuse.
“The Internet is as much a part of the real world as anything else is,” she said.
She had to make a choice about speaking out versus staying safe and silent. She decided to write about it more than ever.
“What the last six months have made clear to me” is the need for tough and fearless games criticism, she said.
For all the hell she and her loved ones have gone through in the last six months, she said,”I’m not going anywhere. There is no place I would rather be.”